Pressure increases to oust Fijian military leader
Australian and American officials express concerns about a possible coup
SUVA, Fiji » Fiji's military chief was under intense pressure to resign today, as the United States expressed concern about a possible coup in the Pacific island and Australia put warships on standby for evacuation of its nationals.
As tensions between the Fiji government and military heightened, the island's Cabinet met in emergency session after the government failed to force military commander Frank Bainimarama from his post yesterday.
Fiji has been rocked by three coups in the past 20 years and fears of a fourth putsch in this former British colony have simmered since the re-election of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in May.
Police commissioner Andrew Hughes said today he had briefed Qarase and Home Affairs Minister Josefa Vosanibola on the nation's security situation ahead of the emergency Cabinet meeting today.
Hughes described the security situation in Fiji as calm.
Qarase met yesterday with President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to ask that Bainimarama, who is currently visiting Fijian peacekeeping troops in the Middle East, be sacked and replaced by a subordinate officer.
Senior military officers said Bainimarama's proposed replacement, Lt. Col. Meli Saubulinayau, had declined the offer, saying he did not have the support of the island nation's military forces, according to local media.
Bainimarama remains an unrelenting critic of a government he has labeled "racist" and "corrupt" and threatens to force from office -- threats that the United States, Australia and New Zealand regard as direct military interference in the democratic process.
Seen by some as caught up in the belief that he saved the nation when he ended the last coup in 2000, Bainimarama has built strong personal loyalty in the officer corps after he was nearly assassinated by renegade troops during a bloody mutiny within months of the coup that first elevated Qarase to power.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said yesterday Bainimarama should accept the decision of the Fiji government and step down when he returns from the Middle East.
"The strong advice we have is the commander must himself follow the Fiji constitution," she said.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he remained "deeply concerned" by the threat of a coup after a telephone conversation with Qarase late yesterday.
"We are worried about the possibility of a military coup," Howard told Adelaide radio 5AA.
"We will take all measures necessary if they're needed to look after our own people," he added.
Bainimarama said from the Middle East he would continue demanding that Qarase's government resign.
"I'll be back to see that Qarase and his cronies step down," he told the Fiji Sun newspaper in a report published today.
The commander said the armed forces were Fiji's only hope of stamping out corruption in the Pacific island nation.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said warships were on standby to evacuate 7,000 Australian nationals from Fiji in the event of a coup. He said Australia had no plans to send troops to Fiji if the government were attacked.
The United States threatened to suspend U.S. aid to Fiji if the military seizes power.